Small, tiny and slim: these are all words that describe the chances of an opposition private member’s bill actually becoming law. Yet, when reporting on those bills, news outlets don’t always tell their audiences that, potentially giving a mistaken impression of how much democracy we have in Canada.
The government sponsors most of the bills that become law. But parliamentarians can also propose their own bills without government backing. These so-called private member’s bills could be a powerful means of dealing with issues the government doesn’t want to deal with.
I say “could” because few of them ever become law.
For example, according to the Parliament of Canada’s LEGISInfo research tool, 3,224 private member’s bills have been introduced or re-instated in the House of Commons between Jan. 17, 1994 and Friday last week. But, by my reckoning, only 69 or 2.1 percent of them bills received royal assent.
If that sounds bad, just wait because it gets even worse.
Opposition MPs sponsored just 21 of the bills that received royal assent, with over half of them concerned with issues of little controversy – such as renaming constituencies or creating commemorative days.
In part, that’s because parliamentary rules make it difficult to debate and vote on such legislation.
But, thanks to rigid party discipline, MPs rarely against their own party anyway. And, thanks to rigid partisanship, governing parties rarely vote for legislation introduced by their competitors. Which is why so few opposition private member’s bills get passed when a governing party holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
Nevertheless, not all of the reporting on private member’s bills lets Canadians in on that open secret and some even inadvertently cover it up.
For example, according to the Canadian Newsstand database, newspapers and the Canadian Press wire service have published at least 25 articles covering Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s proposal to restore the mandatory long-form census.
Thirteen of those articles dutifully reported that there was, in the words of a Globe and Mail editorial, “almost no chances it would pass.” But others didn’t mention that possibility or led readers to believe there was a chance it would pass.
One major daily published an editorial describing Hsu’s bill as a “golden opportunity” that the Tories should “jump on” to make amends for eliminating the long-form census. Meanwhile, another ran an op-ed lamenting the loss of “granular data on jobs and wages” that came with that survey but stating, “Not all is lost” thanks to Hsu bill.
Of course, that bill went on to be defeated earlier this month by a vote of 147 to 126, with all but one Conservative MP opposing Hsu’s bill.
But much more is at stake here than getting Canadians hopes up before dashing them.
Most MPs, especially those who belong to an opposition party, don’t have much say in making our laws. As a result, those who voted for them (in other words, Canadians) don’t have much say either, making democracy between elections a bit of a sham.
That has everything to do with our system of government and nothing to do with our sitting prime minister, who is just exercising the power afforded to him under that system.
One way reporters can help Canadians better understand that is by simply remembering to add an extra line in their coverage of opposition private member’s bills.
It could even be something like this: “A snowball has a greater chance in Hell than this legislation does of becoming law.”
Well, maybe not quite that. But you get the idea.
• FactsCan.ca, a Website that will fact-check the 2015 federal election, has succeeded in crowdfunding the $5,000 it needs to launch. The Website’s team includes RainCity Housing and Support Society community support worker Jacob Schroeder, Democracy Watch coordinator Tyler Sommers and Ryerson University senior research associate Dana Wagner.
• CBC News reports, “U.S. legislation requires American universities and colleges to be open about the number of sexual assaults on their campuses, warn students when they could be at risk and provide adequate security and prevention measures.” But no such legislation exists in Canada. (hat tip: Bruce Gillespie)
• The Toronto Star reports a lawyer for the media is arguing that “barring journalists from interviewing Omar Khadr, a federal prison is violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that he’s received 84 blank pages from the Department of Finance in response to a request for the cost of the government’s expanded child fitness tax credit. The reason for that redaction: it’s a cabinet confidence.
• Beeby tweets the Canada Revenue Agency is now responding to access requests with “password-protected CDs. But password failed – one more [freedom of information] obstacle.”
• CTV News’s Jon Woodward tweets that Health Canada “claims a new record for latest ATIP provided to me! Two years, 6 months, 25 days. Way older than my daughter.”
• Journalist David Akin tweets that it’s ironic that the federal government has announced $143,288 in funding for Self-Counsel Press Ltd. – which recently published an access to information guidebook.
• Planned Parenthood Ottawa president Lauren Dobson-Hughes tweets this interaction with an access to information officer: “Your ATI is 1,000 days late. Can we just drop it? If you don’t reply in five days, we’ll take that as a yes.”
• The British Columbia government has introduced legislation that will see government records digitized and stored in an electronic archive. But the BC NDP and information commissioner Elizabeth Denham are concerned the bill doesn’t legally require government to document key actions and decisions.
• The Toronto Star reports a court-ordered publication ban is preventing the media from naming a 45-year-old mother who was sentenced to 20-months in jail for pressing a hot iron against the arms of her 10-year-old son.
• The Tyee reports British Columbia’s former lobbyists registrar is now lobbying that province’s government on behalf of a company that publishes school yearbooks.
• According to the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatchewan government has amended its freedom of information legislation to allow the release of “personal information included in a report stemming from a Municipalities Act inspection or inquiry.”
• “The three hospitals caught up in the Rob Ford privacy breach saga boast they are ‘transparent and accountable.'” But, according to the Toronto Star, those hospitals are “refusing to disclose how many staff members snooped into his records or how they were disciplined.”
• The Georgia Straight reports on nuggets from the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games’s archives – much of which is still under lock and key.
• Kitchener, Ont. Coun. Frank Etherington writes that fellow politicians “across Waterloo Region are in the process of abandoning voter accountability, government transparency and the public’s unquestionable right to know how $8 million of taxpayers cash will be spent.”
• “The secret documents behind a secret deal to build an NHL-size arena in Markham will stay secret – even though the project was defeated by council more than a year ago,” according to the Toronto Star.
• The Vaughan Citizen has renewed its call for the Ontario city to introduce a lobbyist registry.
• Maple Ridge, B.C.’s council has voted to increase the number of meetings it broadcasts on the Internet and disclose all of the contracts the city has entered into, according to the Maple Ridge Times.
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
Author’s note: Publication of this column was delayed due to Family Day. Its regular publication schedule will resume next week.